Crystal DesVignes is a graduate student in political science at Rutgers University – Newark. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree and recently worked as a graduate intern at the Center for American Women and Politics. The views presented in this entry are her own.
On March 22, 2013, the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) hosted approximately fifty African American women for its annual Run Sister Run program in conjunction with its Ready to Run™ program. As part of the diversity initiative along with Elección Latina, and Rising Stars, Run Sister Run offers campaign and political leadership training for those of the African Diaspora. The program is an opportunity to receive encouragement and valuable insight, and to interact first-hand with other African American women who have either run for elected office, are currently running for a position, plan to run in the future, or are contemplating running for an elected office.
The program is geared toward making sure that African American women who are politically-minded have a space to network and be directed to resources and people who will help them to meet their political aspirations. As a third time attendee of the program, I was already a believer in its importance. But, as the saying goes, the third time was the charm for me in solidifying my understanding of why we need to continue programs like this and expand them around the country.
As I write this piece, I am painfully aware of the issues that women face in our country, even in 2013. We are underpaid for our work in the market place (hence the need for equal pay legislation like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act) and undervalued for our work in the home. We were reminded last year of the fragility of our right to reproductive healthcare, and there was even discussion around whether our bodies could “shut down” a pregnancy that resulted from a “legitimate rape.” We were reduced to being included in “binders full of women” in the last presidential election as one candidate sought to prove that he supported gender equality in his gubernatorial cabinet. Despite all of this, and in some cases because of this, we press on and continue to fight for our place in the decision-making process in our country and government.
The road to political inclusion is hard for women, to say the least. But for women of color, and African American women it particular, it can mean being doubly excluded from the political arena due to racialization and gendering. Of 98 women serving in Congress (18.3 % of the 535 seats in the 113th Congress), 30 or 30.6% are women of color. Only 14 are African American women. African American women hold only 241 seats in state legislatures across 44 states, and although New Jersey has an African American woman currently serving as speaker of the State Assembly (the Honorable Shelia Y. Oliver), she is only the second African American woman to hold this office in a state legislature nationwide.
The numbers don’t lie. The people who come to the table to make decisions in our cities, states, and capitals should not all look alike. They should represent the country as we know it. To have a more inclusive racial/ethnic and gendered make-up among our elected officials isn’t just good politics, it makes for better government. We need more representation from African American women. The Center for American Women and Politics provides just a forum for this endeavor in Run Sister Run.
- How do we teach our young people about public leadership and the role of government in a way that engages boys and girls equally?
- How can we ensure that our civic education efforts inspire both boys and girls to envision themselves as future governmental leaders?
- How do we inform all our young people about the roles women play as leaders in government, from City Hall to the White House?
On the one hand, [African American women] are gaining increased access to political offices, now outpacing African American men in winning elections. On the other hand, they continue to face considerable obstacles to securing high-profile offices at both the state and national level.
Only nine African American women have served in statewide elected executive posts – all since 1993 – and no African American woman has ever been elected governor. Two African American women have run in major party primaries for the United States presidency. Shirley Chisholm became the first African American woman to run for president of the United States in 1972, receiving a symbolic, but unsuccessful, 151 delegate votes. It was not until more than three decades later that Carol Moseley Braun threw her hat in the ring, but she dropped out of the race before the first votes were cast. Before her death in 2005, Shirley Chisholm reflected on the many electoral barriers she broke and the legacy she would leave:
I want history to remember me not just as the first black woman to be elected to Congress, not as the first black woman to have made a bid for the presidency of the United States, but as a black woman who lived in the 20th century and dared to be herself.
This morning, Secretary of State Clinton introduced and endorsed Senator John Kerry as the next Secretary of State in front of the Senate panel who will vote on his confirmation. If confirmed (as expected), Kerry will be the first white male to hold the post in 16 years. While few have questioned Kerry’s credentials for the job, there has been concern about whether Kerry’s appointment – along with those of Chuck Hagel (Defense) and Jack Lew (Treasury), and paired with resignations of three cabinet-level women (including two women of color) and three cabinet-level men of color-- represents a trend toward a less diverse cabinet in President Obama’s second term. It is still too soon to say that Obama’s second term cabinet will be less racially and gender diverse than his first. By my count, Obama has seven cabinet-level appointments left to make, based on vacancies and resignations: Secretary of Commerce, Secretary of Energy, Secretary of the Interior, Secretary of Labor, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, United States Trade Representative, and Chief of Staff. Of the 16 other cabinet or cabinet-level posts, four women will keep their positions: Secretaries Sebelius (HHS) and Napolitano (Homeland Security), Ambassador Rice (UN), and Administrator Mills (SBA) are expected to stay on for the start of Obama’s second term.
While the President may still have opportunities to increase the diversity of his team, the rumored short lists and limited openings for these offices make it unlikely that Obama’s second term cabinet will top the eight women (35%) serving simultaneously during his first term. If so, he could buck the positive trend of the two previous presidents, who actually increased the percentage of women in their cabinets during their second terms. However, it is important to note that President Obama did appoint two women, including one Latina, to the Supreme Court, and included three women among the top six members of his White House staff (two Deputy Chiefs of Staff – one of whom is leaving next week - and Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett). In 2010, Dr. Mary Anne Borelli wrote that, by 2009, “The inclusion of women in the cabinet had become the norm.” As more women have been appointed to cabinet and cabinet-level posts, the questions have shifted from whether or not a woman will be selected to how many women will serve, for what posts they will be chosen, and to what extent their voices will be heard in the most significant White House policy discussions. While the State Department has, in the past two decades, become a common home for female leaders, other influential departments – Defense and Treasury - have yet to see women at the helm. Amidst international conflicts and economic challenges, these cabinet posts are particularly important in guiding United States policy and ensuring national stability and strength. Gender scholarship argues that having diverse voices in those discussions is essential, both to representing unique constituencies and to bringing new perspectives, approaches, and styles to the decision-making process. More specifically, research on female appointees at the state and national levels has shown that women are not only more responsive to women’s policy concerns, but also more likely to bring more women to the decision-making table via their hiring decisions. In yesterday’s congressional hearings on the Benghazi tragedy, many House and Senate members remarked on Secretary Clinton’s tenure at the State Department, and most applauded her staunch dedication to women’s rights and women’s security as a large part of her legacy there. Her accomplishments follow those of other female appointees like Secretary Madeleine Albright, who identified women’s rights as a priority of American foreign policy, Commerce Secretary Juanita Kreps, who encouraged President Carter’s creation of an Interagency Task Force on Women Business Owners, and – of course – Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, who not only broke the glass ceiling for women in presidential cabinets, but also pioneered U.S. policy to protect the most vulnerable workers (especially women and children) and promote their economic security for generations to come through the Social Security Act. Perkins once reflected on her appointment by President Roosevelt in this way:
The door might not be opened to a woman again for a long, long time and I had a kind of duty to other women to walk in and sit down on the chair that was offered, and so establish the right of others long hence and far distant in geography to sit in the high seats.
As we enter President Obama’s second term, we will pay close attention to not only the number of women in the “high seats” within the administration, but also to the power and influence those seats are given in the four years to come. See CAWP's Infographic and Fact Sheet on Women and Presidential Appointments for more details.
Today, we watch as Barack Obama is sworn into his second term as President of the United States. Four years ago, Obama made history as the first African American to win a major party nomination for the presidency and, ultimately, take the oath of office. But President Obama wasn’t the only candidate to make history in 2008. Hillary Clinton won more votes (18,000) and more delegates (1010) than any unsuccessful presidential primary candidate in history. She made history as only the second woman to have her name formally placed into nomination for president at the Democratic National Convention, and left the campaign amidst speculation that she would run again in 2012 or 2016. That speculation has hardly died down and, despite Clinton’s own claims that her candidacy is unlikely, the most recent polls show Clinton as the most popular contender for the 2016 contest. As we celebrate the history being made today on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, it is worth taking a moment to reflect on the women who have blazed a path toward the White House and the potential for a woman to take the oath of office in years to come. Two women became candidates for the presidency in the nineteenth century before they could even cast ballots themselves. Victoria Woodhull in 1872 and Belva Lockwood in 1884 were both nominated as presidential candidates by a group of reformers identifying themselves as the Equal Rights Party. As the first woman to practice law in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, Lockwood knew what it felt like to stand alone and did so again in her second presidential bid in 1888. It wasn’t until 1964, 76 years after Lockwood’s second bid, that Republican Senator Margaret Chase Smith from Maine became the first female candidate to have her name placed in nomination for president at a major party convention, winning twenty-seven delegate votes from three states. Eight years later, in 1972, Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm of New York, the first African American woman elected to Congress, became the first woman and the first African American to have her name placed in nomination for the presidency at a Democratic National Convention, winning 151.95 delegate votes.
Between 1987 and 2003, three women – Democrat Pat Schroeder (1987), Republican Elizabeth Dole (1999), and Democrat Carol Moseley Braun (2003) - put their names forward as presidential contenders, but all stepped off the trail before the first primary votes were cast. In 2012, Republican Michele Bachmann left the campaign trail 24 hours after placing sixth in the first Republican primary. In 2007, Ruth B. Mandel described the legacy of the women who ran for presidency in this way:
They made a claim on public awareness by attaching voices and living images of accomplished woman leaders to the idea that one day a woman could conceivably be president. Their actions made the idea less outrageous to conceive.
In 2008, Hillary Clinton echoed this sentiment as she conceded the Democratic primary, telling the crowd,
You can be so proud, from now on, it will be unremarkable for a woman to win primary state victories, unremarkable to have a woman in a close race to be our nominee, unremarkable to think that a woman can be the president of the United States. And that is truly remarkable.
Speculation has already begun about who will run, and who can win, the presidency in 2016. Some women, most notably Hillary Clinton, are among the names being floated as serious contenders. Still, the presidency remains arguably the most masculine office in the land – presenting obstacles well-understood by the women who have run. As she fought to allow women to argue in front of the U.S. Supreme Court over a century ago, Belva Lockwood said, “The glory of each generation is to make its own precedents.” While women have (slowly) worked to establish a precedent of women running for major party presidential nominations, our generation has yet to set a precedent of a female commander-in-chief. So as we celebrate the political history made today, let us consider the political history women have left to make.